SEBRING - After about five months of being stalled out due to a disastrous fire, one of Highlands County's longest-running vehicle dealerships is off and running into a new year of sales and service.
Since an evening fire Aug. 2 destroyed the office building, show room and all of the parts department, Camper Corral of Highlands Co., Inc. owner Anthony Cozier, his family and staff have worked diligently to get the company figuratively back on the road.
It was a forlorn day for John Lovelette, sales manager for Camper Corral as he drove up to the recreational vehicle sales lot at 7406 N. U.S. 27 just after 6 p.m. Aug. 2. He had heard part of the sales and service complex was ablaze and raced from his home to see its severity - and he saw an inferno.
"It was depressing watching that fire. I find out first from my wife and I left the house," he said. "I got a call from friends on how bad it was and all I could think was, 'Oh no!'"
The cause of the fire was determined to be from lightning strikes, according to a report from the state fire marshal's office.
After the fire, Camper Corral owner Anthony Cozier and his staff of about 15 functioned out of a makeshift office in one of his campers. From there, he and his staff and employees coordinated and worked hard to remodel, reconstruct and re-start.
Over the past four months, Camper Corral management and staff worked together to reorganize the 32-year-old business and rebuild the parts store. The company has now moved into a smaller modular office building and the parts department has been restocked. The service building, not affected by the fire, has been upgraded in the process in anticipation of the return of seasonal residents.
From his office, Anthony Cozier said coincidentally, business has picked up since the fateful day. He said the fire didn't distract from business and people have since commented how well the locale looked since part of it ignited.
"We feel positive because now everything is fresh and new. There's optimism around the business," he said.
During a Friday walk around the RV sales and service facility, mechanics were busy working on engines and siding, while customers spoke with Cozier and his son, Robert Cozier.
Robert Cozier, Camper Corral's general manager, said the next step would be to build and open a new parts building, looking to be completed by the summer. He said the fire accelerated the pace at which the company expanded and upgraded, some planned before the blaze occurred.
Robert said one of the most important factors in getting back to business as usual was the fact the fire didn't damage any of the stocked RVs parked at the time, of which up to 50 are on display and for sale. He said it also resulted in remodeling all of the 5,000-square-foot service department and its three repair bays,
"People say they're happy we survived the fire, nobody was hurt and we returned back to operations within 30 days. That says something for our customers and all the employees; everybody worked together," he said.
The day of the fire, firefighters were on the scene from 6:30 p.m. Friday to 1:30 a.m. Saturday. There were four tankers, seven engine trucks, one mobile air unit and 30 to 40 firefighters to control and extinguish the blaze. Aug. 2, the fire shut down for three hours a stretch of U.S. 27 North at Davis Citrus Road, where Camper Corral is located, to accommodate a water hose that had to be connected to a fire hydrant on the frontage road, on the opposite side of the highway. The road reopened around 10 p.m. Friday.
The reopening and path to business as usual is good news to longtime customer Richard Bjerk of Sebring. Over the past four years, he's bought and got service for three travel trailers and a 35-foot RV. He has plans to buy another one soon.
"I got back from vacation and when I got back, I drove by and realized things didn't look right. Then I found out about the fire," said Bjerk. "I'm glad they're back. It's getting better there and their service has always been great."